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How the invention of cinema influenced James Joyce's 'Ulysses'


Anyone with an interest in cinema likely knows the story of L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, the 50-second short film which, in 1895, was so astoundingly unfamiliar that, when the titular train came chugging along the tracks towards the lens of the Lumiere brother’s camera, the unsuspecting Parisian audience fled from their seats, fearing that the vehicle was about to rip through the projection fabric as though it were a pane of glass. Tales such as this are excellent examples of the way the advent of cinema completely ruptured the European imagination towards the climactic years of the 19th century.

In just 20 years time, cinema would be a fully-fledged art form, with the likes of A Trip To The Moon (1902) The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), and Nosferatu (1922) establishing Europe’s early directors as pioneers of narrative art. The invention of cinema, like the invention of the electric lightbulb in the previous century, completely altered the way people experienced the world around them. But where the lightbulb brought the sun’s rays into even the darkest of months, cinema allowed the public to step into a new world entirely. But while this new technology set the imagination aflame, it also posed a problem for the writers of the early 20th century: how were they to compete with a narrative form so all-encompassing that, to many, it seemed closer to reality than art?

When approached from a historical perspective, the brilliance of James Joyce’s Ulysses owes a lot to the advent of cinema. His writing of this epoch-defining work coincided with his growing fascination with pre-cinematic inventions such as the Mutoscope. Indeed, it looks as though the book absorbed so much of the cinematic language being developed in the first decades of the 20th century, that, by 1930, it was influencing the advancement of the cinema itself, with Sergei Eisenstein, the pioneering Russian filmmaker describing Ulysses as one of the most important works of literature in the history of film.

The most obvious impact the cinema made on Ulysses can be found in its setting. Early cinema – being at the cutting edge of modernity – was obsessed with capturing the modern urban metropolis in all its swirling, chaotic glory. The 1920s saw a wave of ‘city symphonies’, which attempted to encapsulate the bricks and mortar personalities of places like Paris, Berlin, and New York, from dawn till dusk. Some notable examples include Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1926) and Dziga-Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1928). Joyce utilises this same narrative device in Ulysses, using a single day in the life of an ordinary Dubliner, Leopold Bloom, to anchor his narrative to the life of the city.

But Joyce’s writing was also influenced by cinema on a more fundamental level too. The writing itself is highly imagistic, combining abstract images to convey worlds within worlds. This technique had come to define the photographic technique of montage and was later adopted by writers such as Ezra Pound, Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. Joyce recognised that within the world of cinema, an image is defined not by itself but by its relationship to another image. Place a shot of an apple next to a young child and the audience will innately understand that the filmmaker is attempting to convey the concept of innocence or youth. Follow that same shot of the child with a shot of a muddy battlefield, however, and something much more complex emerges. There are countless passages in Ulysess which are characterised by similar sequences of contrasting images. Take, for example, “Hot fresh blood they prescribe for decline. Blood always needed. Insidious. Lick it up smokinghot, thick sugary. Famished ghos”.”

This bizzare combination of images allows Ulysses to shapeshift as it jumps from reader to reader, replicating itself with ever-so-slight variations like some linguistic virus. The subjectivity of Joyce’s prose is another aspect that likely wouldn’t have existed without cinema. In 1909 Joyce set up th Volta cinema in Dublin with the help of three businessmen experienced in the art of running cinemas. Over the next few years, Joyce and his partners put on a stunning range of French and Italian art films by the likes of the George Méliès (A Trip To The Moon), whose productions were filled with all on mind-mending metamorphoses.

Such films likely shaped the ‘Night-town’ sequence in Ulysses, an episode in which sexes, bodies, and species are all rendered elastic and changeable. Of Méliès’ films, David Robinson said: “Nothing in his world is what it seems. In an instant, objects turn into people, butterflies metamorphose into chorus beauties, men become women, anyone may vanish in a puff of smoke.” The very same could be said of the puzzle box world depicted in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

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